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Members' Research Report Archive

Between Revolutionary Motherland and Death: Art and Visual Culture in Socialist Ethiopia

Kate Cowcher [Stanford University]
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, 2013–2015


Getachew Yosef,  Revolutionary Motherland or Death, 1979/1980, wood relief with pigment. National  Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa

Histories of the Cold War in Africa typically position the continent as a site of proxy conflict between superpowers, East and West. They are tales of guns and tanks, not paint, pencils, and photographs; they are rarely tales of African agency. Yet in 1974 the revolution that put Ethiopia firmly on the global map of the Cold War was enacted by domestic agents and driven by images. On September 11 Ethiopian television screens showed a doctored documentary about the unfolding famine in Wollo, north of Addis Ababa. The original film, shot by journalist Jonathan Dimbleby for UK audiences, had been reedited in Addis to include footage of Emperor Haile Selassie’s perceived excesses, from vast state banquets to grossly pampered pets. Watched by thousands throughout the Ethiopian capital, the screening put suffering into jarring juxtaposition with excess as the ultimate indictment of imperial negligence. As journalist Colin Legum reported, that night all were “invited to watch [a] TV spectacle in which the bones of feudal rule were . . . exposed with ruthless professionalism.” The following morning a military delegation arrested the emperor at his palace; his rule had lost all legitimacy.

Accounts of the Ethiopian revolution typically make only brief mention of the screening, characterizing it as a simple final gesture at a point when regime change already appeared inevitable. If histories of the Ethiopian revolution have been written without images, histories of Ethiopian art have similarly neglected the revolutionary period, tending to dismiss it as one of creative dearth and conformism. Certainly the revolution, which quickly devolved into a violent military dictatorship, brought suffering to many, yet stories of survival and innovation abound. My research exposes the revolution’s intensely visual nature. Images were at the crux of political change, and artists were essential to, yet often in a strained relationship with, the military regime, the Derg, which assumed power after the emperor’s downfall.

I position the documentary screening as the culmination of prolonged pressure from Ethiopia’s students to make “feudalism” visible. At the revolution’s heart was a push to reveal, to lay bare, to demystify. A long- standing accusation that the emperor actively concealed Addis Ababa’s destitute population whenever foreign dignitaries came to town resurfaced in 1973, when starving people from the countryside were prevented from entering by cordons on the city limits. In response students photographed the desperate crowds and organized clandestine exhibitions at Haile Selassie I University.

At Addis Ababa’s School of Fine Arts, several months before the screening and coup, student Eshetu Tiruneh painted a mural based on sketches of those amassed on the capital’s outskirts. Entitled Victims of the Famine, it was a defiant gesture, depicting the starving as if they were marching into the school. Although the most explicit, Eshetu’s was not the only such action. Many young artists were engaged in using paint and printmaking to question authority and to make visible that which the emperor appeared to conceal. As my research shows, artists were bound to the movement for change and subsequently became invaluable to the military leaders, who demanded that they visually translate the new official ideology, Marxism- Leninism, for a largely illiterate population.

Across four chapters I examine the fates of photography and film, graphic art, painting, and cultural heritage through the revolutionary years of 1974–1991. Emphasis falls particularly on the first decade, when efforts to reeducate the population and rearticulate national mythology to new ideological ends were most acute. During my residency at CASVA I complemented my earlier fieldwork with research at the Library of Congress, looking particularly at graphic magazines from the anti-Derg Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party. These publications confirm my assertion that we cannot speak of the art of the revolution solely in terms of derivative propaganda.

Seemingly clear, didactic posters, for example, reveal ideological inconsistencies dogging the regime and its detractors, slippages in translation from the greater Communist world, and conspicuous mobilizations of local iconographies. Soviet-trained Ethiopian artist and critic Seyoum Wolde, who had insisted in 1980 that all professional Ethiopian painters should pursue socialist realism, admitted in a 1991 university report that his efforts had failed. More than half of artists surveyed claimed to have no understanding of the term. That senior artists such as Tibebe Terffa, Zerihun Yetmgeta, and Worku Goshu continued to hold solo shows bespeaks the persistence of a plurality of visual languages, while the testimony of those who trained during these years reveals ongoing discussions about art’s role in society. These were years not of conformism but of immense complexity and international entanglement. Ethiopia’s artists experienced the rise and fall of leftist aspirations, produced creative work even under duress, and were players in Cold War dramas extending far beyond the Horn of Africa.